Life on the beach never guarantees that each day will include lazy hours of studying blue water and dilly dallying along golden sand, but Thursday was one of those blank days with nothing ventured and nothing gained, apart from the ease of lazing away the hours in a beach chair, feet tickled by the last gasp of surf and thoughts taken up with a first-time writer. Living the Life of Riley, is it? Call it a twelve-hour vacation before the spectre of one more Home Owners’ Association weekend. Thinking about the agenda begins on Friday, the gruesome gathering with spits and hisses on Saturday and the surefire hangover taking up most of Sunday. Given all that upcoming HOA color, Thursday was a day given over to nothing more strenuous than watering the plants and carrying a chair down to the surf’s edge.
Water is warmer these days and swimmers dive into the tumbling waves without the hesitation of a month ago. Mid-week in May is not a time when the beach is crowded with either people, birds or sea life and first thoughts are for the clean stretch of sand in all directions, unblemished by anything but the occasional misguided jellyfish or the delighted screech of an excited toddler. The ocean is a sandwich of three colors—the hard blue-black line of horizon, a deep blue beneath it and the blue-green shallows that roll onto the sand in a lacy spill. Staring out over the miles of restless current I imagine Tenerife, the Azores and the hot sands of Morocco.
And for the times between gazing at the Atlantic blue and drifting off to sleep, a book to read. An unremembered book that must have come from a friend, a book that enticed me with its opening sentence of 273 words that reads like a hillbilly trailer park on fire. Daniel Woodrell is a writer I’ve never encountered and one who has written close to a dozen books, all of which have remained off my radar until today. What a loss on my part. The discovery of Woodrell was similar to last year’s introduction to Kent Haruf and my shock at what I had been missing. Tomato Red (1998) is Woodrell’s sixth novel, another of his Ozark tales set in trailer parks and shotgun shacks and revolving around people living hard lives. If nothing else, Woodrell’s style and language are exceptional.
A passing glance through a car window leaves its distinct image… ‘A yellow bus honked on the road and went by, carrying a load of tired young Baptists home from the Bible camp that sat four or five miles down. There were two babes in rusty-lookin’ diapers wrestling with a dog in a mud yard across the street. Mom squatted on the porch, cherishing her cigarette, and there was a squad of dead schnapps soldiers scattered to the side of the steps.’ Woodrell describes a walk-on character this way: ‘He smells of baby powder and Old Spice and has a mint clicking behind his teeth so he’s got sweet breath and is prepared to start kissing’ at any second.’
Impressed with Tomato Red and a ‘new for me’ writer, the temptation is to carry on too long about a story only half read. Woodrell deserves more and I will wait until I’ve read the last 120 or so pages before saying more. Still, the first half of the book has been enough for me to recommend this writer for his Ozark English that The Kansas City Star calls, ‘…what barbecue masters do to a tough cut of meat. He smokes it with a combination of raw and rich words, tenderizes it, spices it up until it’s mouthwatering.’